Editor’s Note: The following is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 26 with acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor by Brian Bonner of the Kyiv Post, Ivan Verstyuk of Novoye Vremya, Sergiy Sydorenko of European Pravda, Mykola Siruk of Day newspaper, and Milan Lelych of RBK-Ukraina. The interview took place in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. Taylor arrived as chargé d’affaires on June 18, following U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s firing of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie L. Yovanovitch. He will leave on Jan. 2, less than two weeks before he hits the maximum 210-day limit of service for political appointees who are not confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Several news organizations have reported that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, expected to arrive in Kyiv on Jan. 3, did not want Taylor to be serving while he visited Ukraine. No replacement U.S. ambassador has been named or confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Taylor refused to discuss U.S. politics or the ongoing impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald J. Trump.


Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. listens to Mykola Siruk of Day newspaper during a joint interview on Dec. 26 at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. Other journalists who participated were Brian Bonner of the Kyiv Post, Ivan Vertsyuk of Novoye Vremya, Sergiy Sydorenko of European Pravda, and Milan Lelych of RBK-Ukraina. 

Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. on Dec. 26, 2019:

Introductory remarks

Just to start off. I’ve been to the Prosecutor General’s Office. The Prosecutor General’s Office has just gone through a major re-attestation of all the prosecutors at the headquarters. They’ve had to take a series of tests — one about the law, another on general competence and another, the third, was an interview process where they interviewed all of these current prosecutors. So 55 percent did not pass. This is a major reform and a major reboot. They changed the name as well. It’s the Office of the Prosecutor General, rather than the Prosecutor General’s Office, which I’m told has implications in Ukrainian. They say it’s less Soviet. I was very impressed with that. So I am hoping you will cover that more broadly. I am pleased to talk with you all this afternoon and answer any questions, kind of at the end of my tour. I leave a week from today actually. I’m sure I’ll be back. As many of you know, I continue to turn up here over the years in Ukraine and I will continue to do that. This part of my tour has ended and, just to be clear, we all understood…that this was a temporary tour for me. There is a limited amount of time people can serve without Senate confirmation. There’s a law that says you can serve 210 days without Senate confirmation.


Q: But you haven’t hit that 210 days, it would be late January by my calculation, since you arrived on June 18.

A: No, it would have been early January. That comes up and I will be heading out. I don’t know if I’m going back to the United States Institute of Peace [where he served as executive vice president.] But I will take a little time off.

Q: There’s another agency that’s not so impressive about reforms. What about the Security Service of Ukraine reforms — are they trying to keep the functions that shouldn’t be part of their powers?


A: They are having a robust debate, a serious conversation about what goes into SBU (as the Security Service of Ukraine is known) reforms. We’ve made recommendations, the international community has made recommendations about what they should be focused on — counter-intelligence and securing secrets and not economic investigations, and maybe not so many of them [the agency has 40,000 employees]. These would be good reforms.

Q: The draft law is already ready at Bankova [the President’s Office].

A: I am told they are still working on it. If you’ve heard there is already a draft?

Q: They’ve already drafted it.

A: I heard there was a draft that went to the presidential administration and they sent it back and said you didn’t get it quite right. That may be a couple of weeks ago. That’s why I say there’s still a debate.

Q: What’s your assessment of other reforms — anti-corruption and judiciary. What’s next to be done?

A: They passed law 1088 on the judiciary and now the implementation is the big issue. This was a discussion of a lot of debate. The international community had mixed views. There was a whole debate about the size of the Supreme Court — should it be 200, should it be 100 — if smaller, how to decide which justices are retested. So a lot of questions. The implementation will be important.


Q: Isn’t the ultimate test of legal reform how many crimes are solved?

A: The ultimate test is how many are solved, certainly, and another issue is how many cases come to the Supreme Court. They argue there are so many cases pending, such a backlog of cases, that to reduce the number of judges will increase the backlog, increase the time before they can get all the cases done. Part of the reform will be to limit the number of cases that come to the Supreme Court. So they don’t have to make a decision on every case new. That there can accept precedent. I understand that’s not the case here. They have to start over, hear each case, about matter of law. Certainly, the right answer will be how many people go to jail and how many cases will be heard. The number of justices and cases, whether there’s precedent, that will be taken into account.

Q: What do you think about the Sheremet case [Editor’s Note: Pavlo Sheremet was a journalist killed by a car bomb in 2016; in December, 3 suspects were identified in the murder investigation]?

A: This is a hard one. I’m confused. We need more information. We did get a briefing from (Interior) Minister (Arsen) Avakov a week ago. I think he gave you a similar briefing. It was a very detailed briefing. What I can say is that they have done a very in-depth study and he had great detail and he was also interested in international assistance. He was interested in advice from international law enforcement bodies. At this stage, several of us are looking to see if we can provide that help. I know there are several questions.


Q: Day by day, more and more questions. Did he convince you and other diplomats that the work that the Ukrainian authorities have done is good work; that these suspects did the crime. Ukrainian society is not convinced.

A: I’m not sure he’s convinced yet. What he laid out is their investigation. He didn’t tell us his conclusion. What he did say is there’s still more work to be done. I don’t think they’ve come to a conclusion.

Q: Naftogaz is one of Ukraine’s biggest and most important companies. Have you been able to confirm a direct attempt by exiled billionaire oligarch Dmytro Firtash to re-take the company through payments to Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas and the offer made to Naftogaz executive Andriy Favorov?

A: This is an old story. We’ve heard this for months and months about that attempt. I have nothing new. This is almost 8-9 months that this story has been out there. There was some pressure on Naftogaz to pay Firtash a lot of money and change the leadership. I have no reason to think that that has been at all effective. The leadership of Naftogaz seems to be pressing forward. They have good agreement on the Russians. I’ve read some internal pieces, read a lot of what you have written. I have no other information about the Firtash business, just what’s out there in the press.


Q: Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, has said a lot of things that are very damaging about Ukraine and that are very untrue. It seems that U.S. interests have been served well historically with a mix of foreign service officers and political appointees, but now they’re being used as political punching bags and have not been able to fight back. Particularly, when Giuliani is out there making demonstrably false statements, what do you see as the lasting damage of Giuliani’s forays?

A: I shouldn’t be talking about Giuliani.

Q: Ex-Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has said the impeachment scandal will have 10-15 years of implications on the relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine.

A: Here’s what I think about that. I don’t think this will have a lasting damaging effect on U.S.-Ukrainian relations. The reason I say that is. because in spite of all the punching and in spite of all the controversy, there is a reservoir of goodwill and respect for Ukraine in the United States and specifically in Washington, D.C., that we see all the time.

We see it just over the past week, where there was a strong bipartisan vote for the National Defense Authorization Act with very strong sanctions against Nord Stream 2. They were there to stop Russians from exporting that gas quickly, but also because the damage it would do to Ukraine is clear. It passed like 86-8. It was a big strong vote. There were two things there. One was the Nord Stream sanctions. The other one was the increase in the now-famous security assistance — $250 million in security assistance. The National Defense Authorization Act has the Nord Stream 2 sanctions and an increase in the security defense spending for Ukraine that went from $250 million to $300 million. Another bill that has to go through Congress is the appropriation for next year that sets the budget for the next year. We don’t know that. My main message is there’s strong support for Ukraine on security assistance — anti-ship missiles, radar, lethal defense weapons. That’s all to say that my conversations at the State and Defense departments, at the National Security Council, Congress, House, and Senate. There is strong support for Ukraine. So the damage will not be long-lasting.

Another reason it will not be long-lasting is that a lot of people know a lot more about Ukraine, where Ukraine is, that it’s not Russia, not only that, it’s fighting Russia. A lot of people understand that Ukraine is fighting Russia and that Ukraine has a young reformist government trying to join Europe. Those are the ingredients that people in the United State are looking at.

Q: And that Ukraine is equal to corruption. They keep repeating Ukraine is the third most corrupt country, Do you think it will give the nation a bad image among American society?

A: If it’s not countered. There will be people like me — I’m going out of the government. I know something about Ukraine, I have spent some time there — I’m going to be able to make the case. Others are too. Ukraine is a developing democracy and economy. Yeah, we all have corruption. There’s a lot of corruption. The U.S. has serious corruption problems and so do a lot of countries. Ukraine is not the third most corrupt country. You can take a look at the ratings. Ukraine is somewhere in the middle and actually coming up, the perception of Ukraine continues to go up and improve.

Like I was saying at the Office of the Prosecutor General. There are big steps to cleaning up the problems. I point to the anti-corruption court. Now I can point to the Prosecutor General’s Office — a cleaning out, serious rigorous tests for prosecutors to have integrity and to be well-qualified. I think Ukraine will make the case. I will make the case. Other friends of Ukraine will make the case.

What we see now is investors are coming into Ukraine. They are putting money into Ukraine. You see the exchange rate is getting stronger and stronger. It’s good for some people, bad for other people. Just on that point, the government did a budget assuming an exchange rate of 28-29, it’s now 23 to the dollar. That’s a 35 billion hryvnia change in the budget. That’s a big drop. The currency is stronger. People can buy more from abroad than they could before. Some people are happy and others are not happy. The investors seem to be happy. They’re buying bonds. The minister of finance has to be happy when she goes to the market, she finds they are willing to buy.

Q: But when will they invest, like in buying Motor Sich, [one of the largest engine manufacturers for airplanes and helicopters globally]?

A: That’s the next step. Buying Motor Sich. This spring there is going to be a renewed push towards privatization. There’s going to be some companies not worth much, selling them to get them off the books. There are going to be other companies that are going to be worth things, that are going to get money. Foreign investors go back to rule of law —  if they can see there are courts they can count on, that they can count on prosecutors, that the judges are not corrupt if the Supreme Court works in a way that treats investors fairly, that will be an indication to investors that they can invest in here and if there are disputes they go to court they will get a fair trial.

Q: Is Ukraine doing enough to attract investment from the United States? They’re buying into bonds/securities, but not much else? The US can buy more assets in Ukraine.

A: It could and I suspect they will. There is this interest in the rule of law. Steps were taken over the past six months. It takes a while to have this perception to sink in for investors. As the evidence builds that there is a change in the investment climate, based on more respect for the rule of law, courts, judges, prosecutors, that will encourage people to come. When investors look for other opportunities, they look around the world and don’t see all that many attractive places. Ukraine could be a very attractive place to invest — a big population; the privatization could be very exciting, an opportunity for investors to come. They should.

Q: What about investment in Ukroboronprom (the state weapons manufacturer)?

A: It’s interesting they are doing this audit and they are doing this triage. There are some good companies, there are some terrible companies and some others that need some work. Ukroboronprom is organizing itself — land, sea, and air. They are emphasizing good companies, supply armed forces; when they sell off the bad companies; a lot of the bad companies just own real estate. They don’t make anything. They employ some people, some valuable real estate downtown.

Q: Motor Sich, any developments?

A: They are looking for investors. There are a couple of investors — American and others who are very interested; they’re doing some due diligence; checking balance sheets; visiting the plant, talking to the owners. They’re doing some serious evaluation.

Q: The Chinese are not owners yet; it’s possible to redo this deal?

A: Yes, the Anti-Monopoly Committee has delayed a final decision on whether or not that was an appropriate or legal amassing of shares by the Chinese. And I’m told, but I haven’t seen this. The parent company of (state-owned Chinese company Beijing Skyrizon Aviation) just when bankrupt. There was a media report, so it must be true. The question is the financial viability of the Chinese investor and they have this problem with the Anti-Monopoly Committee. And there are some serious American and other companies interested in Motor Sich.

Q: Why does this take such a long time?

A: (Ex-U.S. national security adviser) John Bolton was here (in Ukraine). He had many conversations on the record and off the record with many officials. He emphasized the danger and the vulnerability of over-reliance of investment from the Chinese in critical technologies, and people listened; there’s an interest, there’s a concern.

Q: Is the U.S. assisting the search for potential investors?

A: We’re being helpful. We tried to identify some. Several have come to us. When they come to us, we try to be helpful — we put them in touch with the right officials, not just Motor Sich offices, but government officials. John Bolton energized the interest in this question. And those officials are now when companies come to us, we know who to talk to on the Ukrainian government side and they are interested.

Q: John Bolton. He’s got a book coming out. And the impeachment hearing has established you as a great notetaker. So there are some possibilities for a book — how you saw Ukraine changes from 2006 to 2009, when you first served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, to your second tour, ending in 2019; secondly, you’re a Vietnam War veteran. The Washington Post just got done with an investigation showing that $1 trillion spent on the war in Afghanistan may have been a disaster, similar to Vietnam. Have you ever thought about writing how the U.S. keeps getting into these misbegotten adventures if you agree they are such?

A: I made no decision about what I’m going to do. Several people have suggested a book. I have not responded one way or another. I’m not inclined to do a book.

Q: If you need a ghostwriter. Just turn over your notes and we’ll take it from there.

A: These notes go back a long time. I’ve been doing these notebooks for a long time. I don’t know about a book. The broader question on Vietnam and Afghanistan. I spent some time in Iraq. I spent a lot of time in Ukraine. I put those in very different categories.

When I first arrived in 2006, I had a press conference in the old building, or this might have been at the residence, and someone asked me this related question: We see that you’ve served in Afghanistan and we see that you’ve served in Iraq and that you did some work on the Israeli-Palestinian war. Does the fact that you are posted here mean you think there’s a war coming here in Ukraine? I said, “no, not at all, because I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine, they sent me here as a reward, they sent me here as a calm place where I can relax.”

Q: In your farewell speech in 2009, you said it was calm.

A: It was fairly calm in 2009; in 2014, not so calm. I am glad to be back here. It gets to a good question about lessons. At some point, I hope to think that through. I have been in the middle of it so much that I haven’t stepped back yet to draw on those lessons. I would probably disagree a bit about Afghanistan. I would say Iraq was probably a mistake. Afghanistan was a war of necessity. Vietnam was probably a mistake. So there are some lessons to be learned.

The big difference (between my first tour and second tour of duties) is Ukraine has been invaded, it’s at war. The Russians have demonstrated their real feelings about Ukraine. Or at least Mr. (Vladimir) Putin has demonstrated his real feelings about Ukraine, whereas, from 2006 to 2009, there was real politics. We had (Viktor) Yushchenko and (Yulia) Tymoshenko. There were conflicts, but this was real politics. There were questions about NATO and questions about language. There were questions about Russian orientation and European orientation. It wasn’t about war, it was real politics and it evolved in that direction. That’s the biggest difference between then and now.

Q: After Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008, you didn’t think something similar could happen in Ukraine?

A: It was interesting. The other thing that happened in 2008 was the Bucharest NATO Summit. You remember that President George W. Bush came here. He wanted to come here in order to hear from President Yushchenko at that time. In Bucharest, Ukraine and Georgia were asking for a membership action plan but didn’t get it. Bush was here to make the case that they deserved it. He did that and didn’t succeed as we know. They got a commitment that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. Then April, four months later, the Russians invaded Georgia. Your question is a good one. What did that mean for Ukraine? Six years later, Russians invaded Ukraine as well. When we saw, Russia invaded Georgia and we go back to the Bucharest Summit and neither Ukraine nor Georgia got Membership Action Plans, did that indicate to Russians they could get away with that invasion. I don’t think, I didn’t and I don’t think the United States projected forward on Ukraine. Some people did that. There were people who were concerned that the lack of a NATO membership action plan in Bucharest would lead to an invasion as it did in Georgia. Turned out six years later, that would be a problem.

Q: Are you satisfied with progress on reform and the direction of President Volodymyr Zelensky; can you somehow sum up — are they moving in the right direction; are they making mistakes?

A: I think they are moving in the right direction. They are moving quickly. Some people say too fast — a turbo-mode, turbo-regime. On the other hand, many of you and many of the international community criticized Ukraine for not going fast enough. I’ve been reluctant to tell this administration that is going fast to slow down. I mean — be careful — they’ve said, we’re going fast, we will make mistakes but we can fix them and they’ve fixed a couple of mistakes.

Judicial reform is a good sign. The Office of the Prosecutor General is a good sign — 55 percent cleaning out. That’s going fast. That kind of reform is going very fast. There are probably many prosecutors who are not so happy with that reform. I give (Prosecutor General Ruslan) Riaboshapka credit for pushing hard on that. I give him a lot of credit for both his leadership and his courage. He has a lot of people who are angry with him now. I will go further. I give President Zelensky credit for supporting Riaboshapka for that kind of reform because that’s hard when you fire that many people. It shows courage and leadership.

Q: One of the European ambassadors said Putin is a dog who should be put into the cage.

A: I’m not in the business of talking about heads of states as dogs. The sanctions that President (Barack) Obama put on and the further sanctions that President Trump has put on are intended to push back and to try to defend against the aggression of Russia. Those sanctions are a good example of the strong bipartisan support for Ukraine. Remember those sanctions passed 98-2. Hard to put in a cage; it’s certainly necessary to push back and defend against Russian aggression.

Q: Are you happy with the direction that President Volodymyr Zelensky is going with Russia? In Ukraine, not everyone is so much sure that he sees the red lines and so on.

A: I think he recognizes there are risks, and it seems to me that he is willing to take some risks in order to change something that Ukrainians want; they want to stop the fighting; they want to stop Russian soldiers from shooting Ukrainian soldiers; there are some steps that have to be taken somehow or another; there are some risky steps; for example; there is disengagement almost unilateral — there were certainly some unilateral elements — in those three areas — Stanytsya-Luhanska, Zolote, and Petrivske.

That was some risk. It got President Zelensky a meeting (at the Normandy Summit in Paris earlier in December) where he looked Putin in the eye. I wasn’t there, but he apparently stood up and there was some pressure on the part of the Russians against Ukraine to do some things, and President Zelensky said no. There are some risks he’s willing to take. But I sense some risks he does not want to take. Apparently so, he sees the red lines. I’m sure he and his team have heard those red lines.

Q: Yet Zelensky has not criticized Russia for actions that are completely hostile.

A: The U.S. criticizes the Russians for hostile actions. We have no problem blaming the Russians for the invasion of the Crimea, for the Donbas. We are not negotiating with Putin. He has to negotiate with Putin. He certainly recognizes what the facts are. He knows the Russians have invaded and killed Ukrainian soldiers. The risks that are associated with him taking some steps, he has to evaluate himself. He probably doesn’t know how far he can go. He knows what he wants to get. He wants to get Russia out of the Donbas and eventually out of Crimea. How you do that and what steps you take — there are lines over which he does not want to step.

Q: Crimea is a long-term problem; do you think the Donbas is as long term?

A: No, I think Donbas is solvable. I think the Ukrainians can come to an agreement whereby the Russians leave the Donbas in a year or two; I think Crime is a long term; I think the elements of how the Russians leave the Donbas are there, under certain conditions; the hard question is the handover of the border. Handing over the border will be difficult for the Russians and Ukrainians. There may be a middle ground; maybe the Russians are willing to turn over the border to some kind of international force. That’s one solution. You thought I was going to say they were going to turn over to the separatists, proxies. I was not going to say that. There is a middle ground. There’s an interim step where the Russians turn over to someone, some broadened OSCE presence or it could be a United Nations-blessed presence or some kind of international force could control the border and provide security in the Donbas so that elections can take place. Elections can’t take place while the Russians are there or while they control the border.

Q: What would make Putin agree?

A: Putin would have to want to get out. There are reasons. We talked about sanctions. He’s raised it a lot. He does want to get rid of sanctions; sanctions are hurting. The way to get rid of sanctions is to find some face-saving way for him to get out of the Donbas

Q: Those people who live under Russian control don’t want to come back to Ukraine. They are under the influence of Russian propaganda.

A: I am not sure that’s true. The U.S. Institute of Peace. We’ve sponsored some dialogues between people living in non-government controlled areas and those living in government-controlled areas. They’ve had a series of conversations back and forth. It’s not scientific and it’s not a poll, but what comes out is that people living in non-government controlled areas of the Donbas want to get on with their lives. The ones we talked to would be happy to be part of Ukraine. Some want to go to Russia and they should go to Russia. Those are Ukrainians over there. The Russians ought to go back. But the Ukrainians who stay ought to be reintegrated.

Q: Why is the refusal rate on visas for Ukrainians to visit America so high?

A: I think the refusal rate is going down. It’s under 50 percent. I’ve asked this question. I’ve noticed this as well. This is something that we have not a lot of control over. It’s the law. Our consular officers ask the question: Are you going to come back? If people are convincing, then here’s the visa. If there’s some reason to think they’re not going to come back or overstay, then it’s hard to get the visa. We should take a look at the experience of the visa-free regime (that Ukrainians have with the European Union). That would be a good thing.

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